On Constitution Day, a Reminder That Freedom is for Everyone – Even Though That Hasn’t Always Been True

Tuesday, September 17, 2019
A few years ago, a staff member from the ACLU of Washington set out to distribute copies of the Constitution in communities around Seattle.

Many people declined the little booklets. A few appeared mystified by them.

“Why would I want that?” one person said. “That wasn’t written for me.”

They were right. When the Constitution was written, in 1787 in Philadelphia, it was by white, slave-owning men, and for them. Everyone else—Africans brought to this land as slaves, Native people forcibly displaced by the colonists, women— was excluded, and would continue to be, for generations to come.

The ACLU does a lot of talking about the Constitution. We’re focused on rights, so you could say it is our brand. We don’t love how the Constitution came about, but we love what it represents; Freedom, fairness, justice for all. One person, one vote.

The Constitution’s drafters in Philly in 1787 secured for themselves certain inalienable rights and protections from the government. The ACLU is committed to unfurling that tattered scroll so that every calligraphed word extends to everyone living in the United States in 2019— including people descended from those who were excluded from it in the first place.

In other words, we are using a document borne of racism to create a nation free from it.

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day, but the Constitution has been having a moment for years. There is a new book, “How to Read the Constitution and Why,” and a hit Broadway show, “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

What both affirm is that the Constitution is above all a living document. Like all living things, it can change, and grow. In “How to Read the Constitution and Why,” Kim Wehle writes that although the Constitution is often described as a “bulwark” against an autocratic government, it is actually “porous,” absorbing the norms and values of the society that surrounds it.

Often it seems as if we depend so much on the Constitution. Wehle reminds us that the Constitution depends so much on us. She calls it a “terse” little document, notable not just for what it says but for how much it leaves unsaid.

We, the people, have always been the ones filling in the blanks. Every person in America plays a part in making and re-making the cultural norms and values that ultimately determine how this tool will be used, and for whom.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can,” said the African American tennis champion and civil rights advocate Arthur Ashe.

We have in the Constitution a powerful tool for securing and expanding the rights of people who have long been denied them. We all can use it, even if we don’t feel protected by it. We can take this living document and turn it toward the light.